On an Old Latin Text-Book

I REMEMBER the very day when the schoolmaster gave it to me. He was that vigorous, rigorous, kind-hearted, thoroughbred Englishman, W. W. It was the beginning of a new schoolyear. Lowell and Story and the other old boys, who seemed so immeasurably ancient, had been transferred to college ; and last year’s youngest class was at length youngest but one, and ready for the “New Latin Tutor.” Then W. W. called us to his desk, and, opening it,— I can hear the very rattle of the “ birch ” as it rolled back from the uplifted lid, — he brought out for us these books, in all the glory of fresh calf binding, and gave each volume into trembling, boyish hands. To some of us there was always more of birch than of bounty in the immediate associations of that desk, and I fancy that we always trembled a little when we had a new book, as if all the potential floggings which it might involve were already tingling between its covers. Yet those of us whose love of the book was wont to save us from the rod may have felt the thrill of delight predominate ; at any rate, there was novelty and “the joy of eventful living ” ; and I remember that the rather stern and aquiline face of our teacher relaxed into mildness for a moment. Both we and our books must have looked very fresh and new to him, though we may all be a little battered now ; at least, my “ New Latin Tutor ” is. The change undergone by the volume which Browning put in the plum-tree cleft, to be read only by newts and beetles, —

“With all the binding all of a blister,
And great blue spots where the ink has run,
And reddish streaks that wink and glister,” —

could hardly exceed what this book shows, when I fish it up from a chest of literary lumber, coeval with itself. It would smell musty, doubtless, to any nose unregulated by a heart; but to me it is redolent of the alder-blossoms of boyish springs, and the aromatic walnut-odor which used in autumn to pervade the dells of “ Sweet Auburn,” that lay not so very far from our school-house. It is a very precious book, and it should be robed in choice Turkey morocco, were not the very covers too much a part of the association to be changed. For between them I gathered the seed-grain of many harvests of delight ; through this low archway I first looked upon the immeasurable beauty of words.

“ Do ye hear, or does an amiable madness seize me ? I seem to hear her, and to wander through holy groves, where the pleasant waters and the breezes play.” Are these phrases really so delightful, or was it the process of re-translation into Latin that so fixed them in my ear ? It seems to me that they first taught me what language was meant for ; they set to music the wandering breeze and the running brook ; they doubled the joy that these things gave. There was no new information offered by the sentence ; I had long known that the waters were pleasant, and had an instinct that the groves were holy ; but that it was within the power of words to reproduce and almost double by utterance these sweet felicities, this had never dawned upon me till these “exercises in writing Latin ” began. This, then, was literature !

“ But he, yet a boy and as unobserved, goes here and there upon the lonely green ; and dips the soles of his feet, then up to the ankle, in the playing waters.” How delicious it seemed in the English, how much more in the Latin ! What liquid words were these : aqua, aura, unda ! All English poetry that I had yet learned by heart — it is only children who learn by heart, grown people “ commit to memory ” — had not so awakened the vision of what literature might mean. Thence forth all life became ideal. The child who read this was himself that boy “ upon the lonely green ” ; he it was who, being twelve years old, could just touch the tender boughs from the ground : —

“ Alter ab undecimo tum me jam ceperat annus,
Jam fragiles poteram a terra contingere ramos.”

Then human passion, tender, faithful, immortal, came also by and beckoned. “ ‘ But let me die,’ she said. ‘ Thus, thus it delights me to go under the shades.’ ” Or that infinite tenderness, the stronger even for its opening moderation of utterance, the last sigh of Æneas after Dido, —

“ Nec me meminisse pigebit Elissam
Dum memor ipse mihi, dum spiritus hos regit artus.”

Then “ visionary forms ” gather round the boy’s head, “fluttering about in wondrous ways ; he hears various sounds and enjoys an interview with the gods ” : —

“ Multa modis simulacra, videt volitantia miris
Et varias audit voces, fruiturque Deorum Colloquio.”

Or, with more definite and sublime grandeur, the vast forms of Roman statesmanship appear: “To-day, Romans, you behold the commonwealth, the lives of you all, estates, fortunes, wives, and children, and the seat of this most renowned, empire, this most fortunate and most beautiful city, preserved and restored to you by the distinguished love of the immortal gods, and by my toils, counsels, and dangers.”

What great thoughts were found within these pages, what a Roman vigor was in these maxims ! “ It is Roman to do and to suffer bravely.” “It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country.” “ He that gives himself up to pleasure is not worthy the name of a man.” “It is the part of a brave and unshaken spirit not to be disturbed in adverse affairs.” “ At how much is virtue to be estimated, which can never be taken away by force, nor purloined ; is neither lost by shipwreck, nor by fire, nor is it changed by the alterations of seasons and of times.” Then came the tender charities. “ Com passionate such grievous afflictions, compassionate a soul bearing unmerited treatment.” There was nothing hard or stern in this book, no cynicism, no indifference ; but it was a flowergarden of lovely out-door allusions, a gallery of great deeds ; and, as I have said, it formed the child’s first real glimpse into the kingdom of words.

Could not the same literary fascination, the same spell, prophetic of future joys, have been exerted by English poetry ? Perhaps so, though just the same quality of charm had never, in my case, been found there. But what fixed it forever in the mind was the minute and detailed study required in the process of translation, — the balancing of epithets, the seeking of equivalents. Genius doubtless is a law to itself, but for ordinary minds the delicate shading of language must be discerned by careful comparison of words, just as taste in dress comes to women by the careful matching of soft tints. It takes two languages to teach us the resources of one. Montaigne, who taught his son to speak Latin only, left him as uneducated as if he had learned his mother-tongue alone.

I was once asked by a doctor of divinity, who was also the overseer of a college, whether I ever knew any one to look back with pleasure upon his early studies in Latin and Greek. It was like being asked if one looked back with pleasure on summer mornings and evenings. No doubt those languages, like all others, have fared hard at the hands of pedants; and there are active boys who hate all study, and others who love the natural sciences alone. But I remember with unspeakable gratitude that I never tasted of any study whatever without hearty enjoyment; nor is it easy to see how any one can ever feel ennui in life while there is a language or a science left to learn. Indeed, it is a hasty assumption, that the majority of boys hate Latin and Greek. I find that most college graduates, at least, retain some relish for the memory of such studies, even if they have utterly lost the power to masticate or digest them. “ Though they speak no Greek, they love the sound on ’t.” Many a respectable citizen still loves to look at his Horace or Virgil on the shelf where it has stood undisturbed for a dozen years ; he looks, and thinks that he too lived in Arcadia. He recalls his college dreams, and walks, and talks, and the debating-society, and the classday. He murmurs something to himself about the “ still air of delightful studies.” The books link him with culture, and universities, and the traditions of great scholars On some stormy Sunday, he thinks, he will take them down. At length he tries it ; he handles the volume awkwardly, as he does his infant ; but it is something to be able to say that neither book nor baby has been actually dropped. He likes to know that there is a tie between him and each of these possessions, though he is willing, it must be owned, to leave the daily care of each in more familiar hands.

But even if he only hated the sight of his old text-books, what would it prove ? Not that he was unfit for their study, or the study for him, but that either book or teacher was inadequate. It is not the child’s fault if all this region of delight be haunted by ogres called grammarians. Where “Andrews and Stoddard ” enter, it is inevitable that all joys should flee ; but why, we are now beginning to ask, should those extremely prosaic gentlemen come in at all ? Accuracy is desirable, and doubtless a child should learn grammar, but the terrible book which this academical firm prepared was not a grammar ; it was an encyclopædia of philology in small print. It is something to the praise of classical studies that even those two well-meaning men did not extinguish these pursuits forever. It is not to be imputed to boys as a crime, “that they do not love the conjugations at first sight, or conceive a passionate attachment for the irregular verbs.” In the days when this old book was new, a little manual of a hundred pages, prepared by W. W. himself, contained all that was held needful to be learned of grammar; and in these happy modern days of Allen and of Goodwin, that golden age returns. Any child can bear a little drudgery, and it will do him good; it is the amount that kills. A boy will joyfully wade through a half-mile of sandhills to reach the sea ; but do not, therefore, try him with the desert of Sahara. When I was at school, the path did not lead through the desert ; but had it done so, this old text-book would have been an oasis.

Yet it may plausibly be said that what charms the child, after all, is the grace of the phrase, and that even if a collection of good English sentences would not answer as well (because he is not forced to dwell on them for the purpose of translation), yet some German or French phrase-book, provided it were not Ollendorff, might serve the purpose. I should be the last person to deny the magic that may also dwell, for young people, in a book like Miss Austen’s “ Selections from German Prose Writers,” which at a later period I almost learned by heart. But however we may define the words “ classic ” and “ romantic,” it will be found, I think, however contrary to the impression of many, that the child is naturally a classicist first. Emerson said well, “Every healthy boy is a Greek”; while his powers are dawning and he divides his life between games and books, he prefers phrases that, while they touch his imagination, have yet a certain definite quality. A Greek statue, a Latin line, reach him and stay with him ; he likes them as he likes Scott, for the vivid picture. He must grow a little older, must look before and after ; the vague sense of a dawning destiny must begin just to touch him ; he must gaze into a maiden’s eyes, and begin to write long reveries in his journal, and fancy himself “ so young, yet so old,” before Germany can fully reach him. To the German was given “ the powers of the air,” but the boy dwells on earth ; for him the very gods must be, like those of the Greeks and Romans, men and women. He is poetic, but it is according to Milton’s definition, “simple, sensuous, passionate ” ; the boy’s poetry is classic, it is the youth only who is romantic. Give him time enough, and every castle on the Rhine will have for him a dream, and every lily of the Mummelsee an imprisoned maiden ; but his earlier faith is in the more definite dramatis personœ of this old textbook. Wordsworth, in one of his profoundest poems, “Tintern Abbey,” has described the difference between the “glad animal movements” of a boy’s most ardent love of nature, and the more meditative enjoyment of later years ; and the child approaches literature as he does nature, with direct and vehement delight; the wildest romances must have in some sort definite outlines, as in the Arabian Nights. The epoch of vague dreams Will come later ; up to the age of thirteen he is a Roman or a Greek.

I must honestly say that much of the modern outcry against classical studies seems to me to be (as in the case of good Dr. Jacob Bigelow) a frank hostility to literature itself, as the supposed rival of science ; or a willingness (as in Professor Atkinson’s case) to tolerate modern literature, while discouraging the study of the ancient. Both seem to commit the error of drawing their examples of abuse from England, and applying their warnings to America. Because your neighbor on one side is dying of a plethora, there is no reason why you should withhold bread from your neighbor on the other side, who is dying of starvation. Because nine tenths of the English schoolboys are “addled,” according to Mr. Farrar, by being overworked in Latin verse-making, must we transfer the same imputation to colleges which never burdened the conscience of a pupil with a single metrical line ? Because the House of Commons was once said to care more for a false quantity in Latin verse than in English morals, shall we visit equal indignation on a House of Representatives that had to send for a classical dictionary to find out who Thersites was ? Since all the leading modern languages and the chief branches of natural science have been sedulously taught in our American colleges for a quarter of a century, why keep discoursing on the omissions of Oxford and Cambridge ? Have we, then, no sins of our own, that we must torture ourselves in vicarious penance for the whole of Europe?

Granted, that foreign systems of education may err by insisting on the arts of literary structure too much ; think what we should lose by dwelling on them too little ! The magic of mere words ; the mission of language ; the worth of form as well as of matter ; the power to make a common thought immortal in a phrase, so that your fancy can no more detach the one from the other than it can separate the soul and body of a child ; — it was the veiled half-revelation of these things that made that old text-book forever fragrant to me. There are in it the still visible traces of wild-flowers which I used to press between the pages, on the way to school ; but it was the pressed flowers of Latin poetry that were embalmed there first. These are blossoms that do not fade. Horace was right in his fond imagination, and his monument has proved more permanent than any bronze, œre perennius. “Wonderful is it to me,” says Boccaccio, in Landor’s delicious Pentameron, “ when I consider that an infirm and helpless creature, such as I am, should be capable of laying thoughts up in their cabinet of words which Time, as he moves by, with the revolutions of stormy and eventful years, can never move from their places.”

One must bear in mind the tendencies of the time. If the danger were impending of an age of mere literary conceits, every one should doubtless contend against it ; for what is the use of polished weapons, where there is no ammunition ? But the current tendency is all the other way, — to distrust all literary graces, to denude English style of all positive beauty, and leave it only the colorless vehicle of thought. There must not even be the smoothness of Queen Anne’s day, still less the delicacy of the current French traditions ; but only a good, clear, manly, energetic, insular style, as if each dwelt on an island, and hailed his neighbor each morning in good chest tones, to tell him the news. It is the farthest possible from the style of a poet or an artist, but it is the style of that ideal man for whom Huxley longs, “ whose intellect is a clear, cold logic engine, with all its parts of equal strength and in smooth working order, ready, like a steam-engine, to be turned to all kinds of work.” In Huxley himself this type of writing is seen at the greatest advantage ; Froude and Seeley have much the same ; and books like the “ Essays on a Liberal Education,” put together by a dozen different Oxford and Cambridge men, exhibit but one style, — a style that goes straight to the mark and will stand no nonsense. It is all very well, so far, and this is doubtless better than carving the bow till it breaks, as in Æsop’s fable ; but is there not room in the world for both science and art, use and beauty ? If a page is good that tells truth plainly, may not another page have merit that sets truth in words which linger like music on the ear? We are outgrowing the foolish fear that science is taking all poetry away from the facts of nature ; but why should it set itself against the poetry of words ? The savans themselves recognize the love of beauty as quite a respectable instinct, when it appears paleontologically. When, in the exploration of bone-caves, they find that some primeval personage carved a bird or a beaver upon his hatchet, they are all in ecstasies and say, “This is indeed a discovery. About the year of the world thirty-three thousand, art was born ! ” but if art took so long a gestation, is it not worth keeping alive, now that we have got it ? Why is it that, when all these added centuries have passed, the writer must now take the style, which is his weapon, must erase from it all attempt at beauty, and demand only that, like the barbaric hatchet, it shall bring down its man ?

In America, this tendency is only dawning ; while Emerson lives, it will be still believed that literature means form as well as matter. But no one can talk with the pupils of our new technological schools, without seeing that, in surrendering books like my old Latin text-book, it is in fact literature that they renounce. They speak as impatiently of the hours wasted on Paradise Lost as if they were given to Plato. Even at our oldest University, the department of “ Rhetoric and Oratory ” came so near to extinction that it only got a reprieve on the very scaffold, at the intercession of some of the older graduates. “ To pursue literature per se ” has become almost a badge of reproach in quarters where what is sometimes called “the new education” prevails. Now there is no danger, in these exciting Darwinian days, that any one will disregard the study of natural science ; but when one sees how desperately it sometimes narrows its votaries, one admires the wit of the Cambridge lady who said the other day, when taxed with one-sidedness by the scientists, that she must, after all, prefer literature per se to science purblind.

It is my most cherished conviction that this Anglo-American race is developing a finer organization than the stock from which it sprang,—is destined to be more sensitive to art, as well as more abundant in nervous energy. We must not narrow ourselves into science only, must not become mere observers nor mere thinkers, but must hold to the side of art as well. Grant that it is the worthy mission of the current British literature to render style clear, simple, and convincing, it may yet be the mission of Americans to take that style and make it beautiful.

And in this view we need, above all things else, to retain in our American universities all that looks toward literature, whether based upon the study of the modern, or, still better, of the ancient tongues. I do not mean to advocate mere pedantries, such as the Latin programmes on Commencement day, or the Latin triennial Catalogues ; but I mean such actual delights in the study of language as my old text-book gave. It seems almost needless to say that the best training for one who is to create beauty must be to accustom him to the study of that which is beautiful; his taste once formed, let him originate what he can. If this can be done by modern models as well as by ancient, let it be done ; it is the literary culture, as such, that we need. Keats, who said of himself, “ I dote on fine phrases like a lover,” was as truly engaged in literary training as if he had been making Latin verses at Oxford ; very likely more so ; but, at any rate, it was not science that he studied. It is for literature, after all, that I plead ; not for this or that body of literature. Welcoming science, I only deprecate the exclusive adoption of the scientific style.

There prevailed for a long time, in America, a certain superstition about collegiate education. So far as it was superstitious, the impression was foolish, no doubt ; but beneath its folly the tradition of pure literature was kept alive. It appears from President Dwight’s “Travels,” that, until about the year 1800, our oldest college prescribed Latin verse-making as a condition of entrance. He also says that at that time the largest library in America held but fifteen thousand volumes. While the means of research were so limited, there was plenty of time for verse-making, but it would be foolish to insist on it now. Since the range of study is so much widened, the best course seems to be, to give a child the rudiments of various good things, and, when he grows older, let him choose for himself.

Personally, I should hold with Napoleon, that, however high we may rank the scientific exploration of nature, we should rank literature higher still, as bringing us nearer to the human mind itself. “J’aime les sciences mathématiques et physiques ; chacune d’elles est une belle application partielle de l’esprit humain ; mais les lettres, c’est l’esprit humain lui-même ; c’est l’éducation de l'âme.” But since the natural preferences of children should be followed in all training, not set at defiance, it is unnecessary and unwise to impose the same order of precedence upon all minds. There is really a good deal of time in childhood ; even young Americans do not mature so instantaneously but that you can teach them something before the process is complete. President Eliot says, “ There have been many good college students who have learned in two years all the Greek and Latin required for admission into Harvard College.”

I am satisfied, from observation and experiment, that it is perfectly practicable so to bring up an average boy that he shall be a good rider, swimmer, and sailor, — shall be a keen field-naturalist, — shall know the use of tools, — shall speak French and German, — shall have the rudiments of music or of drawing, — and still shall be fairly fitted for our most exacting college at the age of sixteen. If so, we appear to have within reach the beginning of a tolerably good education, and there seems no reason why we should sacrifice literature to science, or science to literature. We must simply avoid bigotry in either direction, and believe that children are as naturally born to learn as to eat, if we can only make the cookery in either case palatable.

To be sure, the first steps in booklearning are not all enjoyment, neither are the first steps in learning to skate. But, if the sum total affords pleasure, who remembers the casualties and mortifications ? No doubt there were anxieties and pangs enough connected with this poor old text-book; but, through memory’s kind chemistry, they are all removed, and only pleasurable thoughts remain behind. Our early recollections are like water in a cistern, which in time throws off all its own impurities and grows permanently clear. On board the receiving-ship at the Brooklyn Navy-Yard they give you a draught from a tank which was filled for a cruise forty years ago, and has never been emptied ; there was a period when it was not fit for use, but it is now as sweet as if drawn yesterday. So, in reverting to one’s school experience, the impurities and coarseness and tyrannies disappear ; but you remember the morning walk to the schoolhouse and the game of foot-ball at recess-time, and the panting rest on the cool grass afterwards, and the twittering fellowship of the barn-swallows, to whom it was recess-time all day long. You remember the desk at which you sat, with its notches and inscriptions, and the pulley contrived to hold the lid up, — the invention of some historic pupil who had long since passed away to the university, and now seemed as grand and remote as one of Virgil’s heroes. And with these recurs the memory of the “New Latin Tutor,” and the excitement of the novel study, and the charm of the Roman cadence. It is all turned to light and joy and an eternal spring: —

“ Ver erat æternum ; placidique tepentibus auris
Mulcebant zephyri natos sine semine flores.”

The present is so apt to disappoint our high anticipations, I do not know what would become of us poor fellows if memory did not rival hope as a flatterer, making the past as golden as the future ; so that, at worst, it is only the passing moment that is poor.

The thought to which my dear old Latin book has led me is simply this : that while we make children happy by teaching them the careful observation of nature, — so that our educated men need no longer be “ naturalists by accident,” as Professor Owen said of those in England, — we yet should give to the same children another happiness still, by such first glimpses of literary pleasure as this book afforded. A race of exclusively scientific men and women would be as great an evil as would be a race trained only in what Sydney Smith calls “the safe and elegant imbecility of classical learning.” We can spare the Louvre and the Vatican, we can spare Pæstum and the Pyramids, as easily as we can spare the purely literary culture from the world. And while watching the seeming deaththroes of the one nation on earth which still recognizes literature as a branch of art, we need surely to make some effort to preserve the tradition of the beautiful, lest it vanish from the realm of words.

T. W. Higginson.